Greetings, fellow curmudgeons. This week, I felt the world could use a reminder about the basics of interacting with those with whom we disagree. Feel free to pass this along to the childish hotheads in your life . . . or on your social media feed.
As we all know, the ability to participate in a well-reasoned debate isn’t something we’re born with. It's highly unlikely that "I see your point, but I believe you've missed one important fact" will be among an infant's first words. On the contrary, it takes time, experimentation, and considerable trial and error before one learns to make a sensible and persuasive case for one’s actions or points of view. And let's face it, some never do.
Early childhood attempts at presenting convincing arguments usually offer little in the way of supporting facts.
Child: "I want a pet rooster!"
Parent: "Sweetie, you can't have a pet rooster."
Child: "Why not!?"
Parent: "Because we live in New York City and we can't have one here."
Child: "But I WANNIT!"
And with that, the child rests her case.
When that information (inexplicably) fails to persuade the parent, the rudimentary tantrum technique is often employed. (Surprisingly, this has been known to work, as parents will sometimes give in just to make the noise stop. Still, the success of a tantrum is hardly evidence of superior logic, as evidenced by the fact that you now have a rooster in your apartment, which makes no sense at all.)
Another childhood technique is to simply lie—even in the face of irrefutable evidence—to avoid the consequences of the truth. Of course . . . only very young children do that.
Parent: “Did you take that cookie?”
Child (with face covered in cookie remnants): “No!”
Parent: "I don't think you're telling me the truth."
Child (with tears now turning cookie remnants into a soggy mess): "Why don't you believe me?"
Note the feigned hurt feelings.
With grade school come new opportunities to experiment with the art of rhetorical persuasion.
A young lad caught lobbing spitballs at his classmate might protest, “He started it.” The student caught TP-ing the teachers' lounge might try the old spineless, "It was Mildred's idea,” whereby poor Mildred finds herself thrown right under the bus. Such arguments are intended to divert attention from the initial accusation. It's a method that would never win a debate club trophy, since it fails to prove the initial accusation false; it only points to another person's infraction. Still, it might save you from detention.
A similarly unsophisticated approach to verbal self-defense is to call attention to something far worse than that of which one is accused:
Principal: "I'm told the students in this class have been throwing chairs at each other."
Student: "Yeah . . . well what about the 9th graders? I heard they were throwing desks. What about them?"
As grownups know, the greater crime does not negate the criminality of the lesser one. But to a child, the existence of more heinous wrongs renders one’s own wrongs null and void.
And when a child is truly desperate, with no defense whatsoever for his actions, he might even (believe it or not) resort to mocking his opponent's appearance, or speech, as if people's hairstyles or weight or ways of talking might discredit what they have to say.
Fortunately, as adults, we learn to reason logically with one another, presenting legitimate, persuasive support for the things we say, do, and believe. And that is why, dear readers, you’ll never hear grownups resorting to such childish rhetorical devices as “They started it,” “It was Mildred's idea,” “I’m hurt by your accusation even though there’s irrefutable evidence,” "You have weird hair," or “What about what the other side did?” Such arguments would clearly be beneath the dignity of our age and experience.
Because grownups—especially those who reason for a living, like, for example, lawyers, judges, scholars, scientists . . . oh yes, and politicians—know that these are the debate techniques of children. Such transparent dodges fail the logic test and prove exactly nothing. They only create diversion, making it more challenging to get to the truth, which is what all rational people want.
Grownups acknowledge when an opponent makes a good point. They use logic and fairness to wade through information and arrive at better answers.
But if you ever, in your travels, happen to come across a grownup who employs weak reasoning of the type discussed in this article, I’m quite sure it will not be someone in your own political party. I mean . . . that would be awfully childish, don't you think? And besides, surely, the other party did something worse.